In response to Vajrapala’s request that I might describe the Buddhist teaching on death, here is what I have heard. Some parts of this, through near-death experiences, samadhi, and memories of innocent childhood, I have conscious awareness of having experienced. For other parts, perforce, I must rely upon what I have been instructed.
Close to the end there is some kind of life review. This may happen very quickly, even in a flash, or it may involve longer reflection. The crucial thing here is how easily one lets go. There may be delight or chagrin, nostalgia or regret. Basic attachments stand out. Some people will cling to life, feeling that much is incomplete. They are not ready to go yet. The time is wrong. They rage against what is happening. Others will be at peace with a life well lived or with a stage of contentment reached. In this falling away something will remain. In one way or another, there is a determinative trace or residue that somehow epitomises the life just lived. This will become the base note of the life to come. It might not ever be expressed in words, but be the image or tone of whatever primary theme emerges. Such theme could be “I never got revenge on my enemy” or “I always loved my child best” or “In this life I met a Buddha” or “I was always unlucky in love” or “My great project failed” or “What happened on such and such an occasion was so unfair” or whatever. This preoccupying impulse will go with one. Some few will be completely clean and will take nothing, but only a desire to enter the next stage, to merge with the light and to see the Buddha face to face.
During the actual moments of death it is as though entering a great light. The light may seem white or silver. It may seem as if entering a tunnel of luminescence or going into an ocean of radiance. This is the effulgence of Amida, the archangel, come to receive one. This light is pure, unconditional love. In the case of great saints the actual form of Amida may be sensed. Those of other religions will have other names for this presence, but names are not the issue here. At this point, those who have faith will, as it were, fall willingly into this ocean, letting themselves tumble, and they will be quickly born into the Pure Land. For those who lack faith and those who are still clinging to the former life the experience will be more like being torn away and one passes into an unconsciousness, as when one goes to sleep.
In this sleep come dreams. Some are pleasant and seductive; some are terrible nightmares. All the torments and struggles of life are muddled in with its delights and attractions. It may seem chaotic, like a night of tossing and turning as the consciousness scrambles, as one tries to survive. In actuality, one is still passing through the light of great love, shunyata, but because one cannot accept it one generates innumerable complications, so that, instead of experiencing pristine radiance, the shadows to which one is attached dance and run riot, there being no concrete reality to impede them. What was formerly mental or spiritual now seems concrete. At this time, as at all times, there is still a possibility of salvation if one were to have the presence of mind to go always toward the brightest light. Then one might still find a refuge, but most cannot face it and turn back seeking what may be familiar or comforting, trying to shelter from the tumult of impressions and the sense of being out of control.
According as one fare in the bardo, one is drawn to some form of rebirth. It is likely to be in a new human life, though it might not be. The possibilities are innumerable. They say that one is drawn toward the act of sexual procreation and so enters a new foetus being formed. In due course one is born into a world. Infants often have some residual memories of where they have come from, but these fade as the new world impresses itself more and more strongly. Nonetheless, the determinative trace is ingrained, to be visited each night in the deepest, apparently dreamless, sleep. From the deep unconscious it exercises a pull on one’s life. The new life may be shaped by it or may struggle against it, but its presence is indelible until the next death time when it will be displaced by a new reflection based on the life newly lived.
OJO: BIRTH IN THE PURE LAND
The Buddhas have created domains of unconditional love. Those who enter will enjoy the presence of the Buddha of the land. The easiest to enter is said to be Suklhavati, the Pure Land of Amitabha. These lands are created by the realised prayers or vows of the Buddha. It is said that when one is born into Sukhavati one arrives inside a closed lotus flower. The flower will open when one is ready. This signifies that even in arriving in Sukhavati, one brings one’s karma and, in particular, the determinative trace, with one. However, even this situation of being in the Pure Land but, as yet, unable to see the Buddha or the other beings of that land, is still immeasurably preferable to being reborn in samsara. The time inside the bud is a time to reflect and unscramble one’s life. It is like being in solitude in this life - one has the time to face oneself. After all when one is alone, there is nobody else to blame. Eventually one sees through one’s own foolishness and the bud miraculously opens. One enters the Pure Land, beholds the Buddha, rather as, in this life, one beholds the sun in the sky. Pure love enfolds and all is well.
Some are content to be with the Buddha and to remain in the Pure Land until they eventually enter nirvana. Some have a genuine compassion at work in their heart and feel for those still adrift in samsara. Some simply wish to do the Buddha’s bidding and realise the Buddha’s intention, and through the Buddha’s power they make great vows of their own. These are bodhisattvas. In due course, they are also reborn into a world of affliction. They are as other beings, except that the determinative trace in this case is their great vow which pulls them ever toward a life of service. They may have flashes of memory of the Pure Land from which they have come. They may, like Shakyamuni when Ananda sees him radiant at the beginning of the Larger Sutra, commune with all the other Buddhas from time to time. Yet, in form, they are wholly human, even as something in them is all the while working for the salvation of all.
This is what I have understood of the great moment and the mystery.
Namo Amida Bu.
Thank you to share this precious teaching with us